What Is a Proverb?

Whenever you read a piece of literature, you need to be aware of its literary genre so that you can interpret it properly.
For example, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens tells a story about people who lived and died during the French Revolution. But it is a fictional story, not an historical account. You can read it for spiritual inspiration but not for historical information. Why? Because that’s the nature of its literary genre as a novel.
When you read the Bible, you should be aware that it contains many literary genres. The most prominent is historical narrative, the skillful telling of historical events. But the Bible also includes laws, poems, proverbs, prophecies, parables, and epistles. Each literary genre is distinct and requires different rules of interpretation.
In How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman notes that proverbs typically have three characteristics: brevity, parallelism, and imagery.[1] Let’s take a quick look at each one.
First, brevity: Proverbs are typically—though not always—short, pithy sayings. Proverbs 1-9 are an exception to this rule, but chapters 10-31 prove it. Often, a proverb consists of just two lines. For example, consider Proverbs 1:7:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
In many ways, this proverb is the essence of the book’s message. If you want to know how to live the good life, then revere God first. Most proverbs similarly pack large wisdom into little words.
Second, parallelism: Most of the proverbs are two lines long. Some of these proverbs employ straightforward parallelism, that is, saying the same thing twice, but using different words. For example, consider Proverbs 16:13:
Kings take pleasure in honest lips;
they value a man who speaks the truth.
The message of both lines is basically the same: Kings value honesty.
Many proverbs use antithetical parallelism, that is, saying one thing on the first line, and the opposite thing on the next. For example, consider Proverbs 10:4:
Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
Throughout Proverbs, you will find stark contrasts between wisdom and folly, diligence and laziness, righteousness and sin—all in the course of two lines. That is the power of antithetical parallelism.
One final form of parallelism is comparative parallelism. The words “better than” typically appear in proverbs using this form. For example, consider Proverbs 16:8:
Better a little with righteousness
than much gain with injustice.
Much of Proverbs deals with worldly success, but it never loses sight of the truth that the depth of your integrity is more important than the size of your bank account.
Third, imagery: Proverbs paints verbal pictures that stick in your mind and (hopefully) shape your behavior. For example, consider Proverbs 26:14:
As a door turns on its hinges,
so a sluggard turns on his bed.
You can almost hear the bed springs creak, can’t you?
Brevity, parallelism, and imagery. Those are three basic characteristics of biblical proverbs.

[1] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 37-46.

Who Wrote Proverbs?

Whenever you begin to study a book of the Bible, you should ask six questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? And how?
Today, then, as we begin to study Proverbs, let’s ask who wrote it. The book itself provides several answers.
Proverbs 1:1, for example, says: “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel.” Solomon is also named as a contributor or proverbs at 10:1 and 25:1. But Solomon is not the only contributor. At 22:17 and 24:23, we read that a group of otherwise anonymous individuals known as “the wise” contributed proverbs to the book. At 30:1, we learn that “Agur son of Jakeh” added his proverbs, and at 31:1, we read about “King Lemuel,” who passed on proverbs he learned from his mother.
The Book of Proverbs, in other words, is a group effort. Proverbs 25:1 suggests that Solomon and the others didn’t actually sit down and write the book. Rather, 25:1 says that their proverbs were “copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah.” With regard to the authorship of Proverbs, then, we can probably conclude that while Solomon and the others spoke their proverbs, still other people edited those sayings into a book.
What do we know about these people? With the exception of Solomon, very little. “The wise” and “the men of Hezekiah” are anonymous individuals. Agur and Lemuel do not otherwise appear in the Bible; they might not even be Jewish. But since Solomon looms large over the book, we can safely focus on him.
As Proverbs 1:1 makes clear, Solomon is the son of King David and the heir to his throne. According to 1 Kings 3:9, at the outset of his reign, Solomon asked God for “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” Pleased with this request, God gave Solomon what he asked for. But he also went further. According to verse 13, God said, “I will give you what you have not asked for—both riches and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.” And indeed, the Bible portrays Solomon’s reign as the Golden Age of Israel’s history.
But it was Solomon’s wisdom that made the lasting impression. According to 1 Kings 4:29-34, “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.” He was wiser than the rulers of surrounding countries. Indeed, he was so wise that “men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.”
In other words, Solomon was one smart cookie. But the Bible emphasizes that Solomon’s wisdom was the gift of God to a man humble enough to ask for it. Perhaps that’s why Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”—both for Solomon and for us.